16 March 2016

Books: Me Before You By Jojo Moyes (2012)

 Me Before You is the second book I’ve read in the last couple of months that dealt with someone wanting to end their life due to an illness, or in this case, an accident that left Will Traynor a quadriplegic. Though The Universe Versus Alex Woods took a more in depth look into assisted suicide and leaving the reader to decide if it was right or wrong, in this novel, the idea of what Will wants sits like an elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about it.
While we don’t get much of a glimpse into Will’s life before the accident, writer Jojo Moyes alludes enough that he was once an adrenaline junkie, moved fast, owned his own company, and was generally living the high life of a very successful, very wealthy man (some may venture, an elitist white man as well) who also comes from an equally wealthy family. But after the road accident that left him paralyzed below the chest, with only minimal movement in his right arm, his life comes to a standstill. And he discovers, as time passes, that he lost more than the use of his body.

Two years later, Louisa Clark loses her job at the local café The Buttered Bun. She is a 26 year old, unambitious woman with very few qualifications. She lives with her working-class family and is constantly outshone by her younger, more intelligent sister, Treena, who is a single mother. Her parents become disappointed because the entire family depends on her wages. Louisa goes to the Job Centre where Syed, the Job Centre assistant, finds an ultimate option which is to look after a disabled man. Louisa gets accepted and is hired by Camilla Traynor, the mother of Will, because she thinks her son needs someone able to brighten his spirits. Louisa also notices how falsely everyone is acting in Granta House, Will's family mansion.  During her first few weeks, Louisa notices that Will's wrists are covered with scars, and then, one day, she overhears Will's mother and sister talking privately and finds out that he tried to commit suicide shortly after his mother refused to grant his wish to end his life through an assisted suicide organization known as Digntas (a real life group based in Switzerland). Horrified at his attempt to commit suicide, his mother agrees to honor his wish, but only on the condition that he agrees to live six more months. In that time, Louisa secretly plans to change his mind and show him life is still worth living.

I liked this book, despite the fact that this could be considered “chic lit”, a derogatory description for books generally designed to be read by women. While I knew of the book (well, mostly because of its sequel, Me After You, was being set for release soon and there was press about it), it wasn’t until I was working on the film adaptation of novelist Jay Bell’s Something Like Summer last summer in Portland that I saw someone actually reading it. One the star’s of this film, Ben Bauer, was reading it between scenes one morning. He was nearly finished with it, and I knew he was a big reader, so I tried to engage in conversation about books. But that didn’t go very far. Of course, he finished it, mentioning he was in tears during the final pages. So, as I generally am with books, I stored the information in a cabinet in my brain and knew I would eventually consider reading it.

Then Katie, a former co-worker of mine at Borders, posted a picture of used books she recently acquired. Then another co-worker, Jen, asked Katie if she read Me Before You. I chimed in mentioning I was considering reading it as well, but Jen seemed to think that was a silly idea. Well, as I’ve discovered in my old age, it’s things like this (even in some minor way like this) that make me then want to read it. It’s part stubbornness and part competitiveness, I think.  

Anyways, I enjoyed the book, even though I knew the ending (the sequel’s title sort of gives it away. Not a very bright piece of marketing, if you ask me. Then again, The Return of the King sort of did the same thing). I think I liked it, partly, because of it being British. While correct manners and what’s proper is subtly played out here, but what I loved the dry humor and Louisa’s family. Katrina is a blast, and the sibling rivalry is painted very well (though Treena’s son Thomas seems to get very little in the way of development and seems, more or less, to be used as a plot point later in the book).

It’s not maudlin in any sort of way, which I think is good. I was happy, yet also disappointed for some reason, that book never got into great detail about the moral ambiguities of assisted suicide. There is some minor discussions -can someone be prosecuted for it, and what not, but it’s oddly glossed over with Louisa only talking to other quads in chat rooms on the internet. But Louisa is the Cinderella heroine that books like this are targeted towards women have a tendency to be. But she is flawed and vulnerable in very believable way, she’s like today’s Millennial’s who grow up not really achieving much and suddenly discover they’re on the road to thirty with nothing to show for it. And while she seems fine with this, it’s clear what she needed (and what many of us need) is a mentor to push them onto the right path.

Of course the pusher is not always handsome and rich, but then would anyone really want to read this book and see the movie version (trailer here) if he wasn’t? Not sure I will read the sequel, but I may end seeing the film (mostly because it’s got Jenna Coleman (Clara from Doctor Who) playing Louisa’s snarky, smarter younger sister.

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